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Democrats pushing for national coronavirus testing strategy

Line of cars waiting for testing of the

Line of cars waiting for testing of the Coronavirus at the ProHealth testing site in Jericho, Friday March 20, 2020. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats are pushing the Trump administration to develop a national coronavirus testing strategy as leading public health experts continue to warn that the U.S. is not testing enough people to ensure a safe reopening of the economy.

The latest stimulus bill passed by Congress includes $25 billion to increase COVID-19 testing — including at least $1.5 billion for New York — and gives the Trump administration a May 24 deadline to provide Congress with a national testing plan. So far, President Donald Trump has balked at the idea of the federal government asserting control over testing, arguing that the job is best left to state governors.

“Testing is a local thing,” Trump said at an April 27 White House briefing. “It's very important. It's great. But it's a local thing.”

An eight-page “blueprint” for testing released by the White House on April 28 places the onus on state governments to scale up testing, describing the federal government as a “supplier of last resort” for testing supplies.

Supplies including testing swabs, vials and chemical reagents to process COVID-19 tests have been in short supply in the wake of the global pandemic, prompting Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other governors to call on Trump to use his powers under the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of these items.

Schumer (D-N.Y.) contends that federalizing the nation’s testing will help address the wide range of testing supply shortages that governors on both sides of the aisle have said is preventing them from quickly increasing their testing capacity.

“As our heroes on the front lines continue their critical work, it remains clear that the country’s testing capabilities remain inadequate — we need a quicker, more-comprehensive testing infrastructure to track and respond to the virus,” Schumer said in a statement to Newsday. “The bottom line remains that without fast, free, and available testing in every community; expanded reporting; and a bolstered supply chain, the recovery we want will be much harder to achieve.”

Schumer, in a letter sent to Trump on Tuesday, said Senate Democrats were “deeply troubled by the lack of detail and strategy in your testing blueprint,” and “fundamentally reject the notion that the federal government bears this little responsibility in increasing testing capacity.”

“Our public health, government, and business leaders need information about who has COVID19, who needs to be isolated or quarantined, and who may be immune due to previous infection,” Schumer wrote in the letter signed by 41 other Senate Democrats. “The only way to get that information is testing: widespread, fast, free testing — and the only way to accomplish testing on the scale needed is a nationally coordinated effort.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on Schumer's statements, but on May 1 Trump took to Twitter to denounce the senator after he criticized Trump's handling of testing. Trump wrote Schumer "knows we have done a great job on Testing, just like we have on Ventilators and everything else."

On Tuesday, the White House announced the U.S. is conducting an average of 250,000 coronavirus tests per day, but public health experts and epidemiologists contend the U.S. should be testing at least double that amount to properly track the spread of the virus as new hot spots continue to crop up throughout the country.

Cuomo has said New York is moving to ramp up testing to 40,000 people per day, up from the current average of 22,000, but researchers at the Harvard Global Health Institute have indicated the state should be testing at least 130,000 New Yorkers a day as it gradually moves toward a phased-in reopening plan.

Harvard researchers maintain that overall the U.S. should be testing at least 900,000 Americans a day, according to an analysis released Thursday. The Institute initially recommended 500,000 to 600,000 individuals in a report released 10 days earlier, but as the virus continues to spread the amount of testing needed to track the spread has also increased, according to the researchers. 

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, in an Op-Ed piece published by NBC News on Monday  said despite Trump’s assurances in March that every American “who wants a test can get a test,” currently the need for tests “still far outstrips the availability.”

“The more we fail to test adequately, the more we play catch-up with an incredibly fast-spreading virus,” Jha wrote, adding that Trump’s guidelines for reopening the economy, ask “states to move through the plan's phases for opening depending on their numbers of cases. Yet the only way to know the true number of cases in any state is by implementing ubiquitous, on-demand testing.”

An analysis by the Rockefeller Foundation released last month concluded that the U.S. should test 3 million people a week, and called for the formation of a “Covid Community Healthcare Corps” staffed by at least 100,000 health care workers to ramp up contact tracing efforts.

Trump’s former head of the Food and Drug Administration, Scott Gottlieb, and Andy Slavitt, a former director of Medicare and Medicaid in the Obama administration, issued a joint letter to House and Senate leaders in late April urging the federal government to allocate at least $46 billion to ramp up testing and contact tracing and to offer shelter for infected individuals needing to isolate.

"The existing public health system is currently capable of providing only a fraction of the contact tracing and voluntary self-isolation capacity required to meet the COVID-19 challenge," Slavitt and Gottlieb wrote in a letter signed by more than a dozen other former lawmakers and federal health officials from both sides of the aisle.

Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under the Obama administration, has recommended a minimum of 450,000 tests per day.

“Having a clear plan does not diminish its difficulty,” Frieden said in a report issued by the health nonprofit Vital Strategies. “We need real-time, accurate data to track the virus, and the people enlisted to find and respond to cases, clusters, and outbreaks swiftly and successfully must be highly trained and well supervised. Building this system will require leadership and a nationwide effort — but the health of our people and the wealth of our economy depend on it.”